Have you loved and been loved? Truly loved? If so, you’ve probably lost as well. The type of loss we’re discussing is permanent in the form of the death of a loved one. We all live Life with the certainty of death, but bereavement may at some point touch you or someone you care about, causing painful and debilitating grief.
The intensity and duration of the grief is unique to each of us. It’s typically proportionate to the closeness of the relationship we had and the circumstances surrounding our loss (like their age, health, whether death was anticipated, and their level of comfort and/or peace before passing). There may be a cascade of stressful changes and transitions following the death of a loved one. The good news is that grief commonly recedes, eventually permitting a satisfactory — albeit changed — life.
I grew up with loving parents and all four grandparents, and didn’t experience a major loss until college when my maternal grandmother died. She was a wonderful grandmother who personified unconditional love. Mommy Alice was aged and had serious health challenges for a long-while before passing, so her death was expected. I can’t say I was bereaved by her loss, but was deeply saddened.
The next major loss — years later — was very different. My world as I knew it completely ceased to exist when my father died. Granted, I was a full-grown adult, but I had been a “daddy’s girl” my whole life and felt secure with my father’s love as a platform upon which to navigate Life. Daddy was my rock, my cheerleader, my biggest fan, and my source of security. I remember the last time I saw him: My sister and I had road-tripped to meet my parents for lunch and shopping. It’d been a couple of months since we’d seen our parents and it was a week before Daddy’s 58th birthday. He was exuberant and proud of the “clean bill of health” that his general practitioner had given him the day before (indicating that Daddy had surmounted some recent health challenges). We celebrated and thoroughly enjoyed the reunion. As my sister and I were walking away from my parents, something felt weird, like an odd thing were happening that I couldn’t explain. I turned to my sister and said, “Lisa, do you feel funny?” She replied that she also felt an inexplicable sensation. We walked back to our parents and asked them to join us for the weekend. My parents stood hand-in-hand, smiling widely, and declined our invitation by encouraging Lisa and me to spend the time together alone. Lisa and I begrudgingly left them. I turned back for one final glance: My father was waving with a huge, proud grin on his face watching his daughters walk away.
Two days later, my father died.
At first, my mind couldn’t process the fact that Daddy was gone. I was in denial. Then I was weak, physically so. Then abject, excruciating emotional pain set in. I lack the words to adequately describe the depths of the pain I felt at losing my father. Anger also came. I remember yelling at God asking Him why He hadn’t made Daddy sick so we could’ve prepared for his death. I then felt lost. The rudder to my life had disappeared. What was Life without Daddy? And poor, devastated Mommy: Her college sweetheart, best friend, and soul mate had left her alone.
Mommy passed five years later, also a week before her birthday. Between Daddy and Mommy’s passing, I suffered a miscarriage. These remain the three most traumatic losses of my life.
Living After Loss
Just as each of us experiences death in a unique manner, there is no one recommended method of coping with significant loss. There are a myriad of resources to help one cope. Below are some of my suggestions:
Time. It is terribly cliché, but time tends to ease the intense pain of your loss. The void still exists, but you learn to gradually transition into a different life. Many bereavement interventions recommend respecting the natural course of grieving, which is a unique and often unwelcome journey over days, weeks, and months. When intense grief persists beyond half a year or more, it may be time to seek professional help (see “Awareness” below).
Health. Now that you may have a greater respect for the certainty and proximity of Death, this is the time to improve your own health. Eat well, sleep well (not too much or too little), exercise regularly, and don’t just survive: Thrive. Knowing the devastation that death causes to loved ones may be just the motivation you need to take extra good care of yourself to prolong your own healthy years.
Social Support. Hibernation and isolation as a reaction to severe loss are often unhelpful coping strategies. It may be why there are many social customs that involve increased social interactions after someone has died. Strengthen and/or create supportive bonds with people who are constructive and enhance your life. Keep as many of the “normal” healthy patterns and interactions as you can. This is especially important when children are involved. They need to be reassured that they can feel secure, so normal routines and stability are helpful, as are open discussions and positive parenting (such as parental warmth, consistency in routines and discipline, effective communication, including dialogues about death and the person who died).
Believe. The physical absence of your loved one doesn’t mean that they’ve completely gone. They exist in your memories — something that never can be taken away. They exist through the imprint they made in the world — what they wrote, created, shaped, influenced. They exist in an after life, should you believe. Explore, develop, or deepen your spiritual and/or religious beliefs. You may find it a source of comfort, strength, and hope.
Honor. What could you do to honor the memory of the person you lost? What did they hope for you that you didn’t feel you could accomplish? Accomplish it now. Dedicate your success to their memory. Make Life count in a manner in which they would be proud.
Awareness. Recognize that the loss of a loved one is a major, disruptive life stressor that may reveal or trigger a physical or emotional illness. This was my mother’s case. The stress of my father’s death unmasked and perhaps accelerated a rare neurodegenerative illness that eventually killed her.
Comfort. Providing “words of comfort” when someone you know has lost a loved one isn’t easy. One of the things to try to avoid is “prying” the thin veil of composure off of a grieving person when it isn’t the appropriate time or setting. For example, after my mother died and I managed to get back to work, people would say, “How are you doing?” my reply would be something superficial, like “I’m fine, thanks for asking.” That was fine. What wasn’t fine would be when they would respond with, “No. I mean how are you REALLY doing??” Oh. My. Goodness. It would be so tough because I had merely put myself together with band-aids and just wanted to focus on work for as long as I could withOUT thinking about my Mommy being gone. That same scenario happened after my miscarriage. People even said asinine things, like “You’re still young. You can have more children.” What they didn’t know was that I had been seeing a Reproductive Endocrinologist; getting pregnant was an extraordinarily challenging process in and of itself.
So, what should you say? “I’m sorry for your loss.” “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do.” Give them gift cards to restaurants that deliver food to their home. Offer to take their kids out to lunch or a movie. Send a note with a personal anecdote about what the person meant to you. Attend the funeral or memorial service; the sense of support and comfort your presence provides is invaluable. Check in with them weeks and months later when the flurry of social correspondence “dies” down.
Although most grief recedes to a manageable level within six months after the death of a close loved one, for a small group of people, this doesn’t happen. It can become “complicated grief” that is serious and debilitating and may warrant professional intervention.
When is professional help recommended?
There is a small subgroup of people whose grief symptoms are prolonged, intense, and persist for a long period of time without abating. Researchers (M. Katherine Shear and colleagues, 2011) have identified these symptoms to include: frequent thoughts, images, or yearning for the deceased; intense loneliness or emptiness that life without their loved one has little to no purpose or meaning; ruminating thoughts about the circumstances surrounding the death; persistently feeling shock, disbelief, or anger; feeling estranged from other people; excessively avoiding — or conversely, actively seeking — reminders about the deceased person; and preoccupation with thoughts of suicide or wanting to “join” the deceased person.
To me, most of those symptoms sound normal in the acute stages of grief. However, researchers suggest that what distinguishes these common symptoms from those that are “clinically” significant are when they clearly impair the person’s ability to function normally in school, work, and/or socially and more than six months have passed since the death of their loved one. Problems may also include disturbed sleep (either too much or too little); an increased use of alcohol, tobacco, prescription or illicit drugs; emotional or mental illness, including depression and anxiety; and/or suicidal behavior. If this is the case, strongly consider seeking professional help.
If death is a normal part of life and we each must die, why is loss from death so painful?
Death creates a void. One without physical or emotional access to the person. It brings an end to the possibilities that existed. The relationship you had is frozen in time without the potential to change, enhance, or repair it. Because there’s no hope, there is incredible sadness. But feel it all. Feel these new, unwelcome emotions so you can process them and develop a new understanding of your capacity for growth and strength. Slowly, begin thinking of potential opportunities that can exist now that your former way of life is not an option. You can — over time and with concerted effort — craft a meaningful life. Although normal as you knew it is gone, create a “new normal;” an honorable one worth living.